Philippines’ Rarest Whiskered Pitta Thriving in Mt. Banahaw

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MANILA, – Cris Ceriban, a caretaker at the Bangkong Kahoy Valley Resort, Dolores, Quezon, recently stumbled upon a bird’s nest while inspecting the community water source in Mt. Banahaw.

He thought it was just a nest of a Plain Bushen, a Philippine endemic waterbird, until he described his find to a visiting wild bird photographer, who immediately went to the location to confirm his suspicion of a possible nest of a pitta or montane bird.

True enough, the nest belongs to the rarest pitta in the country, the .

Whiskered Pitta, the Philippines’ rarest pitta at Mt. Banahaw in Dolores, Quezon

Nestlings of the Whiskered Pitta (Pitta kochi) at Mt. Banahaw, Dolores, Quezon

The discovery of the nesting Whiskered Pitta, the most sought-after Philippine endemic pitta, in Mt. Banahaw is a result of the nest reporting/bonus program initiated by wild bird photographer Ramon Quisumbing, who gives monetary incentives to whoever discovers and protects bird nests in Bangkong Kahoy Valley Resort in Dolores, Quezon.

Before the program, common folks did not give importance to birds and their nests; more often than not, they ate bird eggs with the belief that these gave them energy.

Today, the conservation initiative is in full swing.

On this recent discovery, Quisumbing said, “This is the 3rd first-time recording of a nest at Bangkong Kahoy Valley/Mt. Banahaw in 2 months. The first 2 were the confusus race of the Besra and the Lemon-Throated Leaf-Warbler. Now, it’s the Whiskered Pitta! Bangkong Kahoy Valley is fast becoming a true bird haven!”

That the Whiskered are thriving is significant because the species is considered vulnerable and threatened, according to the International Union of Conservation Networks (IUCN). Known also as Koch’s Pitta, the Whiskered Pitta is usually seen in areas such as Cordillera Central, Sierra Madre and Bicol. The Igorots call the bird Kong Kong. Tourists may go to Camp Sawa at the Penablanca Protected Landscape in Cagayan: a 10-hour drive, 12-hour hike and overnight camp. And you still have to pray for luck to see it.

When fellow wild bird photographer Neon Rosell II posted the photos of the nesting Whiskered Pitta in Mt. Banahaw at 1,095 meters above sea level, and published the first ever documentation of its nest, Rey Sta Ana, Rocky Sison and this author, all belonging to the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines, went to Bangkong Kahoy to follow his trail and see for themselves the biggest yet rarest of the Philippine pittas.

After 2.5 hours of hiking difficult trails of different terrains (some are dangerous with eroding soils, slippery rocks and poisonous plants) they only had two encounters with the rare beauty: one lasting less than 20 seconds, the other only about 5 seconds.

Red-bellied Pitta (Pitta erythrogaster) at La Mesa Ecopark in Quezon City, Philippines

There are about 32 different pittas in the whole world, and two of these are found only in the Philippines – the Azure-breasted or Steere’s Pitta and the Whiskered Pitta, the rarest in the country. It is the pinkish-tan malar stripe or “whiskers” that give Whiskered Pitta its name, although the field marks are the large size and the scarlet belly and undertail coverts.

Three other pittas are also found in the country – the resident Hooded Pitta, the Red-Bellied Pitta and the migrant Blue-Winged Pitta.

Mads Bajarias, an avid birdwatcher and founding member of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, said that the Whiskered Pitta is a bird that holds so much cache because of its elusive, secretive nature. He added that Tim Fisher, co-author of A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines, estimated in 2007 that, despite the bird’s large size (9 inches), less than 200 birders have ever laid eyes on the beautiful forest jewel.

This makes it attractive to birdwatchers who want to test their skills and patience. He said that to be able to see the elusive Whiskered Pitta is comparable to catching sight of the rare Philippine Eagle in Mindanao.

With the discovery, British Ornitologist Desmond Allen said that “Bangkong Kahoy will be needing to build a 5-storey hotel soon for the birders.”

Philippine endemic Azure-breasted Pitta (Pitta steerii) at Rajah Sikatuna Protected Landscape in Bohol, Philippines

Hooded Pitta (Pitta sordida) at La Mesa Ecopark in Quezon City

Other photos of Philippine wild birds by the author may be viewed at http://www.facebook.com/philippinebirds.

Alain Pascua

Alain Pascua

Alain Pascua began in 2009 his crusade as a wild bird photographer using photos of wild birds in their natural habitats as tools for education and conservation. He is one of the founding-administrators of the "Wild Birds of the Philippine" Facebook Page (https://www.facebook.com/philippinebirds) where he and fellow bird photographers share their photos and galleries of Philippine wild birds to the internet world. He co-founded the Philippine Bird Photography Workshops and Tours (https://www.facebook.com/wildbirdphotog.ph) in 2011, and the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines (WBPP - https://www.facebook.com/groups/wbpp.admin/) in 2012. Alain Pascua’s photos of wild birds have graced the 2010 year-end advocacy ads and 2011 calendar materials of TeaM Energy, the 2011 calendar of Philippine Eagle Foundation and its 2011 advocacy posters and ads at Mindanews' Our Mindanao Magazine, the 2012 Peatlands in Southeast Asia advocacy poster of Global Environment Centre, and the newly published book Owls of the World A Photographic Guide by Heimo Mikkola. Alain Pascua won second place in the 1st Bird as Art International Bird Photography Competition organized by Art Morris in the Captive Birds Category. His galleries may be viewed online at the following sites: http://www.alainpascua.smugmug.com http://www.facebook.com/alainpascuaphotography http://www.facebook.com/philippinebirds

Alain Pascua

Alain Pascua

Alain Pascua is one of the founding-administrators of the "Wild Birds of the Philippine" Page, the only multi-photographer gallery of Philippine birds in Facebook. He also co-founded the Philippine BIrd Photography Workshops and Tours, a professional outfit, in 2011, and the Wild Bird Photographers of the Philippines (WBPP) in 2012. Alain Pascua’s photos of wild birds have graced numerous publications, the latest are featured in the newly published book Owls of the World A Photographic Guide by Heimo Mikkola. He won second place in the 1st Bird as Art International Bird Photography Competition organized by Art Morris in the Captive Birds Category.

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Glenn Bartley

Alain, welcome to our blog – your images are really outstanding, and we look forward to learning more about birding in the Philippines with all of the colorful species you’re so lucky to have.

Alain Pascua
Alain Pascua

Thanks for the welcome, Ken, and for appreciating my images! I do hope to give the world glimpses of the wild birds of the Philippines, hoping that one day they can visit us here and see for themselves our avian treasures! Cheers!